Sodini's ex-pastor can't explain the hatred

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For years at Tetelestai Church, George Sodini was a face in the crowd at Bible studies and in church services.

Some churchgoers would stop and introduce themselves to the Rev. Alan Richard "Rick" Knapp, but Mr. Sodini, a reserved man who attended the church in Plum sporadically, was not among them.

To the pastor's recollection, the two had never spoken one-on-one.

In fact, Mr. Sodini had never really entered the pastor's thoughts, but apparently the pastor had entered his. In hateful posts on his Internet blog, Mr. Sodini, the man behind Tuesday's deadly shooting spree at LA Fitness in Collier, frequently referenced the Rev. Knapp, blaming him -- among many others -- for his wealth of social woes.

"This guy teaches (and convinced me) you can commit mass murder, then still go to heaven," Mr. Sodini wrote. "Guilt and fear," he continued, kept him in the church "for 13 long years until Nov. 2006."

In his first interview since the shootings, the Rev. Knapp said he is struggling to understand how Mr. Sodini distorted his messages -- as well as God's.

"It's impossible to describe seeing your name written by someone in a context of such a horrible distortion of everything you believe in," he said. "You have to comb through everything you have ever said in 30 years and say, that's not anything I have ever said. ... The message of the word I preach never reflected such a thing."

The Rev. Knapp spoke following an hour-long special service he called in light of the shooting and the attention it has brought upon the church of about 400 members. The nondenominational church's focus is on Bible study and teaching, as it videotapes its services to mail to ministries in other states. Tetelestai incorporated in 1991. The name means "It stands finished," Jesus' last words before his death, in Greek.

At last night's service, the Rev. Knapp read from scriptures, reminding the group that distorting God's word can be destructive to one's self and others, that salvation comes with a moral obligation be benevolent instead of narcissistic or full of rage. Actions come with consequences in this life and the next, he said, even if we can't understand what those are.

He never referenced Mr. Sodini but later said he was trying to draw parallels.

"He acted culpably and he acted alone," he said. "Yet from what he put in words, he projected the blame on anyone who had authority in his life."

Other church leaders did not recognize Mr. Sodini, even though he was asked to leave the assembly in 2004. Church officials had learned that Mr. Sodini was "bothering" a woman in the congregation, and the board of seven deacons removed him from the ministry.

"It wasn't that he was trying rape her or breaking into her home, he was bothering her," said Charles Matone, chairman of the board of deacons. Mr. Matone hand-delivered a letter to Mr. Sodini asking him to leave but still didn't recognize the face that flashed on television screens after the shootings.

"I think he knew he was bothering her to an extreme extent," he said, "When it finally came down, I don't think he was shocked at all."

Mr. Sodini had no memorable reaction to his removal, according to Mr. Matone.

Church protocol allows members to request readmittance into the church in six months. But the woman who made the complaint had moved out of state and Mr. Sodini did not ask to return.

In 2006, Mr. Matone said, Mr. Sodini signed his name on a membership renewal form, but church leaders don't remember seeing him again.

"He seemed quite reserved," the Rev. Knapp said. "No one could have known those thoughts were in this man."

At last night's service, the Rev. Knapp and churchgoers prayed for speedy recovery of those wounded, and for the emotional healing of the friends and families of three women killed in the gunfire.

He also urged them to remain faithful despite the tragedy and the attention it has brought upon the church and its teachings.

In his postings, Mr. Sodini tried to ascribe blame on others, including the pastor, who said his outreach to church members comes from his teachings.

The Rev. Knapp later said he feels "grief and sadness, but certainly not guilt."

"It's clear that this man acted on his own," he said. "From bitterness and rage."


Sadie Gurman can be reached at sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.


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